Booked Up

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Hi, my name is Alejandro, and I’m a bibliophile. And damn proud of it, too!

Yes, of all my curious habits, book collecting is the most pronounced. A gatherer of literature; a captive of scribes; a hoarder of tomes. Don’t try an intervention on me, though! Your picture might end up on a milk carton.

My fascination with books goes back to my toddler years, when my parents bought a slew of children’s literature – mainly the classic “Little Golden Books” – and set me down in front of them. Their determination to instill a love for reading in me stemmed from their own upbringing. They come from a generation where a high school diploma was enough to get through life. But, while it took me more years than I wished to complete my own formal education, that love for the written word was embedded into my brain at that young age and has never faded. I still have all those “Little Golden Books.” They’re aged and crinkled – practically falling apart – but they’re mine. And they’re just as valuable as the rest of my vast cache of reading material.

I recently did a comprehensive inventory of my books and have counted 459. This gallery doesn’t include my equally grand collection of magazines, such as “National Geographic.” Some neighbors, a childless couple, bought my parents and I a gift subscription for Christmas 1975. I fell in love with the magazine and have maintained an annual subscription ever since. Over the years, I’ve collected a number of older “National Geographic” periodicals; some dating back to the 1920s. Other magazines include “Archaeology,” “International Artist,” “Smithsonian” and “The Sun.”

But it’s the myriad of books that harbor the essence of my cerebral interests. I don’t have enough shelves for them, so – as you can see from the photos below – I’ve merely stacked them wherever I can. Among my prized tomes are first editions of Edna Ferber’s “Giant” and Jacqueline Susann’s “Once Is Not Enough.” I have a 50th anniversary edition of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” from the Folio Society and “The Multi-Orgasmic Man.” (No, it’s not erotic fiction.) I have the complete works of both Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov; Leonardo Da Vinci’s notes compiled into a 3-volume set; almost every Agatha Christie murder mystery; and Geoff Mains’ “Urban Aboriginals,” a comprehensive guide for leather fetish aficionados.

Two items from Taschen, “Circus Book: 1870 – 1950” and “Magic: 1400s – 1950s,” go beyond qualifying as coffee table books – they practically are coffee tables! They’d also qualify as deadly weapons and – in a state like Texas where education is virtually an elective – I might be committing a crime in owning them.

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It’s not unusual for me to be reading two or more books at once. Currently, I have three going: “The Orphan Tsunami of 1700,” Robert Ludlum’s “The Aquitaine Progression,” and Tom Bianchi’s “Fire Island Pines.” “The Orphan Tsunami of 1700” is so called because of a mysterious series of tsunamis that struck Japan’s eastern coastlines in January of 1700; an orphan in that no local seismic activity had been noted. Scientists finally made the connection between that “orphan” and a powerful earthquake that rocked what is now the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

My love for dogs matches my love for books. The two merge in Catherine Johns’ “Dogs: History, Myth, Art,” Bruce Fogle’s “New Encyclopedia of the Dog,” and “Dogs: Their Fossil Relatives & Evolutionary History.” The latter is very much like a text book, but it’s the best one on the canine species I’ve ever read.

My collection ranges from the practical – Charles Schwab’s “Guide to Independence” – to the whimsical – H. Jackson Browne’s “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” the smallest-sized item in the group.

Although I’m no longer a practicing Roman Catholic, I have Steven Runciman’s “A History of the Crusades,” which is a triptych piece: “The First Crusade,” “The Kingdom of Jerusalem” and “The Kingdom of Acre.” “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” is an in-depth analysis of the possibility Jesus Christ survived crucifixion and went on to get married and have children. Conversely “The Day Christ Died” is Jim Bishop’s intimate retelling of Jesus’ purported final days before his death. Malachi Martin’s “Hostage to the Devil” is an account of five cases of demonic possession the late Irish-born Jesuit priest attended. Martin gained notoriety several years ago when he claimed Satanism had been practiced within the Vatican. I once offered to lend Martin’s book to a close friend, but he vehemently refused. “That’d be scary to read something like that,” he told me. He’s the only person I’ve ever known to be terrified of a book.

Anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised that my preoccupation with the macabre and supernatural manifests itself in Ann Arensberg’s “Incubus,” as well as “Ghosts,” a collection of short stories compiled by Marvin Kaye, and Mary Higgins Clark’s “Where Are the Children?” But I also like to view the so-called supernatural from a practical lens, as is evident in Nicholas Roger’s “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.” Before my parents saw “The Exorcist” at the theatre, my mother read William Peter Blatty’s book of the same name. We had moved into a house in suburban Dallas more than a year earlier; an area that had once been farm land. Displaced mice and scorpions often turned up in the home. Reading “The Exorcist” one night after I’d gone to bed and my father had returned to work for a short while, my mother was startled by faint scratching sounds coming from within the walls. (If you’ve either seen the book or read the movie, you know what I’m talking about.) ‘We need to get this house blessed,’ my mother thought, as we were still devout Catholics. But an exterminator later told us the noises came from confused mice, trying to get out. Or – so he said.

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My fascination with Earth’s natural elements shows up in Erik Larson’s “Isaac’s Storm” and R.A. Scotti’s “Sudden Sea,” each about two of the deadliest hurricanes to strike the United States in the 20th century. The National Geographic Society’s “Realms of the Sea” is as much a study of the world’s oceans as it is a photographic collage. Simon Winchester’s “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded” details the 1883 eruption of the notorious Indian Ocean volcano that altered the planet’s climate, even into the 20th century, and became a synonym for all types of global cataclysms.

History has a firm place in this array: Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century,” Edmund Morris’ “Theodore Rex” and A. Scott Berg’s “Wilson.”   I believe Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” and “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” should be required reading in schools. Together they explain a lot how the world has come to exist in its current condition. Neither is told from a strictly Euro-Christian viewpoint, so that would be the first obstacle to overcome in getting them into the hands of grade-school students. But it’d be worth the trouble.

I’m also not the only writer in the family. One of my first cousins, Richard De La Garza, PhD., co-authored “Cocaine and Methamphetamine Dependence: Advances in Treatment.” A guide for psychiatrists specializing in drug addiction, it’s just one factor in Richard’s ongoing efforts to mitigate the damage caused by substance abuse; mainly cocaine and methamphetamine.

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Aside from “Giant” and “The Day Christ Died,” one of my oldest books is Lareina Rule’s “Name Your Baby,” published the same year I was born. I’ll search through it sometimes, as I name the characters in my stories. I still have some actual reference and text books, such as Reader’s Digest’s “Family Word Finder,” which I still use religiously for my writing; the always indispensable “Chicago Manual of Style (6th ed.)”; and Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think,” a guide for the Internet age. Of my three dictionaries, “The Living Webster: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language,” is the oldest, as well as the largest. It wouldn’t qualify as a coffee-table; it’s more of a small-lamp end-table type. One of my mother’s work colleagues had bought it for me as a birthday present in the 1970s. That woman knew I liked to write stories and felt it would make the perfect gift for me. She was right. My mother had said the woman’s son had been killed in Vietnam and had become so distressed by it that she’d periodically tell people at the office she needed to call her son…before realizing he was dead. Now I watch helplessly as my mother’s own memory keeps faltering. That mammoth dictionary still ranks as one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

I’ve tried to share my love for reading with other people. In July of 1998, I was surprised to get a notice in the mail from some friends announcing the birth of their daughter. I rushed out to buy a gift certificate and a large book of children’s nursery rhymes. In 2005, my then-supervisor and his wife adopted a baby boy from Guatemala. I did the exact same thing: bought a gift certificate and a large book of children’s nursery rhymes. Get that kid into reading as soon as possible!

I’ve heard more than a few people say that reading is a waste of time. To them, I politely say, ‘You’re an asshole.’ More directly: an illiterate asshole. Many of them are the same ones who consider TV guides and beer bottle labels reading material. Others have told me the Christian Bible is the only book they’ve read front to back or are reading at that moment. In that regard, I consider Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” on equal grounds, since it’s also filled with violence and erotic imagery. (Yes, I have that one, too, and find it more plausible than the Bible.)

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If people spent more time reading, they’d learn more about the world around them and wouldn’t have much time left for fighting or fucking. Fewer people would get killed and / or get sick.

Literacy is such an integral part of civilization I can’t understand why someone would find it boring. Societies with high rates of literacy and education generally have lower rates of violence and are more politically and socially stable. Nations such as Australia, Israel, Japan and Norway boast some of the highest standards of living in the world, which correlates to their equally high rates of literacy – almost 100% in each case. People who can read and write spend more time contemplating the mysteries of the universe and how to make the world better for everyone. Yes, sometimes they misuse that knowledge to harm others. But, then again, there are people who view education itself as dangerous; a detriment to the structure of the society they’ve carefully designed for themselves. An educated populace is composed of people who can think for themselves. They have the audacity to question authority and wonder aloud why things have always been done a certain way. Such boldness upsets the oppressors, but it’s a measure of true spiritual freedom. For me, freedom comes in all shapes, sizes and colors of the written word.

Top image courtesy of “Must Be This Tall to Ride.”

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6 Comments

Filed under Essays

6 responses to “Booked Up

  1. I love what you said about if more people read there wouldn’t be as much fighting. So true. There’s no better way to open one’s mind than reading.

  2. Wow…I’d never get bored at your place! I read a lot also…usually about 4 books a month and could read more if I didn’t do so many other things also. I’m on Goodreads, are you? I finally got my husband to read about 3 years ago. He’s not read about 5 books! I used to read 10-15 small books to my son at bedtime every night when he was small, but he doesn’t read now…can’t figure that one out.

    • Yes, I have so many other things going, too, so I really have to make the time to read AND write. No, I’m not on Good Reads, but I need to check them out again. I’ve found that most men don’t like to read, unless they’re also writers or engaged in some other type of artistic endeavor. That explains why I often see the term “she” used in reference to readers in essays or articles about writing. Many men would just rather wait until the movie comes out.

      Regardless, I hope I have enough time in my life to read all the books I’ve accumulated!

  3. Hi Alejandro! As a fellow bibliophile who is beginning to think she has crossed over to bibliomania, I really enjoyed this post! My world revolves around books and the printed word in general. Books offer so much education and entertainment, which are not necessarily separate. I can’t imagine not reading and not having books.

    I will add that my own daughter, who taught herself to read at the age of three and who was a bookworm, had her love of reading killed in second grade, when she was forced to read at grade level. I still occasionally think that that teacher should have been throttled. Sigh.

    Thanks for this wonderful post. (I am now heading out the door to do volunteer work at a local library.)

    • Thank you, Jean, and I’m glad to know you volunteer at your local library. Education is too critical of an element in any society, so I get upset when I learn that some local and state governments will sacrifice funding for schools in favor of tax breaks for businesses. There should be enough money for both.

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